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Travel: Truffle Hunting in Croatia


    Our small group, an assortment of travelers from the US, Canada and Germany,  gathered as Ivan Karlic, our guide, leashed up Blackie, the sweet, specially trained dog who would sniff out truffles buried at the base of oak trees growing in a small grove on a hillside near the village of Buzet. Most of us were visiting the Istrian peninsula of Croatia for the first time and none of us had ever been on a truffle hunt.


    Blackie knew what to do. Nose to the ground, she set out snuffling at the thick layer of leaves on the forest floor. Tail wagging, she moved quickly from one spot to another while Ivan whispered soft words of encouragement. We followed them both, stepping over roots and stones.


    Pigs were once the traditional truffle hunting animals, but as Ivan pointed out, it’s much easier to stop a dog from destroying or eating the truffle than a determined pig. So, these days, most truffle hunters have made the switch.


    Truffles are true buried treasure. Black truffles, the ones we were watching Blackie search for, average 30 to 50 Euros. When they’re in season, white truffles can go for many times that amount. That’s no small thing when you consider most are the size of a walnut or a small apple.


    As we walked behind Blackie, Ivan chatted with us about his family’s business harvesting the truffles from the small wood.  But suddenly he called out to the dog and rushed over to pull her away from where she was pawing at the ground. Using the tool he carried, a flat blade attached to a stick, he sliced into the dirt until the truffle was exposed. Gently, he scraped the dark soil away with his finger until he could gingerly pry the truffle free of the root to which it had been attached. He held up the prize and we cheered. Blackie got a treat for a job well done.


    While we were still admiring the find, Blackie went back to work. Once again we followed her zigzag path, talking quietly as we watched her stop, sniff, sniff again and then move on. When she started pawing at the ground, Ivan ran over to her and again, pulled a hard black truffle from the ground. Blackie moved deeper into the small forest and a few minutes later she hit paydirt again. While Ivan worked to free that truffle the dog started scratching at the base of another tree nearby. He called out for someone to help so I took his place and slipped my fingers into the hole he’d created with his spade. The dirt was cool and moist as I worked it away from the truffle. Like an archaeologist, I worked slowly, gently, scraping away the soil that concealed the truffle until Ivan came back and helped me pull it away from the root. I handed my phone to the woman beside me and asked her to take a photo. In the image, I am a blur. The only thing in focus are my hands, muddy, with dirt-caked fingernails cradling the truffle. It was exactly right.


    We carried the four truffles we’d gathered back to the farmhouse and Ivan’s mother, Radmila, met us at the covered patio. She exclaimed when she saw what we’d found. Apparently, it was a very good truffle hunt. Blackie, after being petted again by everyone in the group, was taken back to the kennel with the family’s other truffle-hunting dogs.


    Radmila broke eggs into a bowl, added thin slices of one of the truffles we’d found and made an omelet of our work.


    She sliced a baguette and topped the slices with butter and another sliver of truffle on top. With savory sausages and bottles of house-made wine, we had a meal so fragrant and delicious I will remember it forever.


    I’d expected the tourist treatment: a field “salted” with truffles that had been planted so we could have the (artificial) pleasure of watching a dog sniff them out. But my experience was just the opposite. I kept the photo and I’m going to frame it for my kitchen. The next time I make an omelet, I’ll think of that day; the feel of the dirt on my fingers and the unmistakable earthy fragrance of delicious buried treasure.
    



Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com

Travel: The Cure for the Common Life

     My friend called to say she’d just put a ticket to London on her credit card.  

     “Is the card you’re trying to pay off, the one you were going to cut up?” I asked. There was a long pause and then a deep sigh.   

    “Yes.”

   But, she could explain. She’d found one of those impossible-to-resist fares and she had a friend from college who would let her spend a few days in her flat. “All I have to worry about is getting there and meals, and, you know, other expenses,” she told me. “It was such a deal I couldn’t say no.”   

   I laughed at her flawed logic even as I recognized the reasoning. Meals and “other” expenses in London add up quickly, but that’s the kind of thing you tell yourself when you’re hooked. And we’re both hooked.    

   Travel is a drug like any other opiate. It triggers all the right responses. It alters your mood. It gives you a jolt of energy. For some of us, it only takes a taste and we’re goners. From that point on we crave it. We abuse it. We swear off and then, just when we think we’ve kicked the habit, we succumb again. The younger you are when you start, the worse the addiction is.
    

   Of course, travel has medicinal qualities, as well. Literature is filled with stories of men and women who flee to mend a broken heart.   

   Travel helps us grieve. When a friend died last year, I booked a trip to Iceland and spent a week facing the harsh wind, staring into bubbling thermal pools, gazing out at ash-covered glaciers until finally, standing in the wide rift valley between two of the earth’s tectonic plates, I could bring myself to say goodbye and let her go.        

   Travel distracts us. My last child is heading off to college in the fall. She is the youngest of four and her brother and sisters are already out on their own. One night several months ago, in the deepest part of winter, I couldn’t sleep because my mind kept trying to wrap itself around the idea that after 28 years of full-time mothering, I am about to shift into being a consultant. Never mind the fact that I travel often and don’t mind going off on my own, and that most of my children are avid travelers, for a moment I felt adrift. Like a balloon without ballast. Without a child in the house, what will I do? My husband’s job keeps him tied to a schedule. As a writer, especially with no parenting routine, what would hold me back? A deadline can be met anywhere. I don’t have to be in the office.     

   For a moment I considered buying one of those round-the-world cruise tickets and spending a few months at sea. I plotted what I could cash in, sell off or trade. (I could have a garage sale!) Then I would shelter in a tiny cabin, comforted by the rolling waves, distracted by the parade of ports until I made my way back home. I would, in other words, go on a deliberate travel “bender” until the worst was over and I could come back soberly ready to accept the the fact that my babies are really and truly all grown up. 
    

   So, with that kind of reckless secret plan, who am I to rebuke a woman who spends to her limit chasing some kind of chance-of-a-lifetime British museum travel buzz? (Travel educates and enriches, right?) Besides, she was right. It was a great fare.
   

    “I know I shouldn’t do this right now. ” she said before hanging up. “But after this trip, I’m done for a long time. I mean it.”
   

    We said goodbye, but before I could end the call she called out, “Oh, by the way, I’m having a garage sale this weekend. You should come by.”

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a travel writer whose audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at catmillsap@gmail.com
  

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Cheryl-Anne Millsap's Home Planet column appears each week in the Wednesday "Pinch" supplement. Cheryl-Anne is a regular contributor to Spokane Public Radio and her essays can be heard on Public Radio stations across the country. She is the author of "Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons."

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